Fleece on Earth

SouthPark Mall, Starbucks, and a holiday bucket of warm snake oil

The only time Jesus ever lost his temper, all four Gospels tell us, came in the temple in Jerusalem at Passover, when he found merchants exchanging money and livestock. He chased them out with a whip. “Take these things hence,” Jesus orders in the Gospel of John. “Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.”

So if you’re inclined to look logically at manufactured citizen dramas such as the “debate” over the traditional Christmas tree at SouthPark Mall, you might wonder why self-professed Christians would object so strenuously to a supposedly sacred symbol’s absence from a shopping mall, for heaven’s sake.

But you shouldn’t look at it logically. There’s no real logic to it other than that of marketing.

I’m not talking about the mall. I don’t think they set out to intentionally offend the 25,000 or so people who signed the Change.org petition calling for the tree to come back (which the mall granted). I’m talking about an information market, and a large and ferocious group of people hungry for any hint that their traditions, their way of life, are under assault.

The historian Rick Perlstein wrote about this a few years ago, during the 2012 Presidential campaign, and I think it offers some profound guidance in understanding what we’re looking at here:

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began …

Closer inspection reveals the looming horror to be built on a non-falsifiable foundation (“could become”; “is likely to become”). This conditional prospect, which might prove discouraging to a skeptically minded mark, is all the more useful to reach those inclined to divide the moral universe in two—between the realm of the wicked, populated by secretive, conspiratorial elites, and the realm of the normal, orderly, safe, and sane.

The SouthPark tree kerfuffle is, admittedly, an imperfect example of this. A far better one is the Starbucks cup nonsense. It contains all the constituent parts: A clear sign of secular whitewashing of Christmas generated from nothing by a man I wouldn’t buy anything from (video below); an institution caught clueless and backpedaling, then ultimately profiting; an army of culture warriors insisting their names are “Merry Christmas”; and a media machine (myself included, I guess) eager to spit out as much clickable content as possible. (Underlying the entire “controversy” is an inconvenient fact—since 1997, when Starbucks introduced holiday-themed cups, it’s never decorated them with anything explicitly Christian, just snowflakes and Santas and such.)

So even earnest and accurate appeals to common sense on the SouthPark tree—It’s just a tree! Don’t we have more important things to worry about?—miss the point. It could be anything. What’s really being sold here is the intoxicating sense that you’re an oppressed minority in a hostile land in which you’re under attack, and you, culture warrior, must summon up the spine to do battle by telling SouthPark you’ll spend your money elsewhere.

And you will spend the money. And Starbucks, SouthPark Mall, the guy in the video, media, will, one way or another, make it. Just in time for the holidays, when a fleece feels warmest.